Every morning around the same time as the sun is rising, my father comes into my room and kisses me on the cheek, though I'm still sleeping.
Every night, my mom comes and kneels next to my bed, and we say our bedtime prayers…Our Father Who art in Heaven…, Hail Mary, full of grace… (three times), Glory be to the Father, the Son…, O My God I’m heartily sorry for having offended You…, Angel of God my guardian dear…, St Michael the Archangel defend us in battle…, Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord…, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, we love you, save souls. She then sprinkles me with Holy Water (she keeps the bottle in the pocket of her robe), says I love you, kisses me on the cheek, and says Bon soir, bug as she walks out.
I became acquainted with the saints very early on. They were on their pedestals in church, on the windows, on prayer cards, around the house, in my coloring book. (I’m grievously sorry, St. Elizabeth of
I was only partially joking when I said here that we bargain with the saints. I said the Prayer to
I loved reading of the martyrs like St. Cecilia, who had held her hands in a certain position and prayed for three days with her head only barely clinging to her trunk, I loved seeing bad pictures of St. Francis Xavier with a ball of fire above his head and having the facial expression of a man who is about to burst an aneurysm. I loved reading about all those young saints, so consumed with God’s love that it was literally consuming their bodies, and they were happily suffering and living on nothing but the Eucharist alone. St. Aloysius Gonzaga as a rosy-cheeked boy cherub. St. Rose of
We have saints that always knew they were going to be saints (St. Maria Goretti) and saints who got there initially kicking and screaming (St. Francis of Assisi). Saints who refused to fight (St. Martin of Tours) and ones who led armies (St. Joan of Arc). Saints that levitated during Mass (St. Joseph of Cupertino), and saints that fell asleep (St. Therese of Lisieux). Ones who were kings (St. Louis) and ones who did without great possessions (St. Anthony the Great). Ones who founded religious orders (St. Madeleine-Sophie Barat) and ones who did great things in existing ones (St. Bernard of Clairvaux). Ones whose lives are concealed behind myth and legend (St. Dymphna) and ones who kept diaries (St. Maria Faustina Kowalska). And on it goes. I risk irreverence here, but I always felt we Catholics could do a commercial: "We've got thin ones, tall ones, short ones, fat ones. Smart ones, silent ones, old ones, young ones. Mystics, peasants, nobles, confessors...."
I started reading the actual writings of the saints at a fairly young age. I read the writings of the Carmelites, Spiritual Exercises, St. Augustine’s Confessions and City of God, I read a book of Patristic writings while deliberately skipping everyone who wasn’t a saint - I checked my saint book first (so long, Origen and Tertullian), I even read chunks of Summa Theologica without knowing one single thing about scholasticism. (What I did know was that St. Thomas Aquinas had the sweetest, most quizzical expression on his face in my saints book for children). All I knew was that a saint had written it, so it must be good, and he wrote some cool things about God and human nature.
Around adolescence, I started to get into Catholic apologetics. I have an analytical mind, so it was fun to learn about all the disputes on soteriology, ecclesiology, sacramentology, and all the other -ologies. Previously, I had never read a Council document. In the next ten years "for fun," I would read Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon; I would memorize canons and wordings from Councils; I'd read Patristic writings with an entirely different eye. I'd read modern Catholic theologians with an ear for edification, not illumination. I'd debate Protestants and correct my fellow Catholics, I'd chastize the poorly catechized and tell them to read, read, read. (Although those who honestly believe that Constantine founded the Roman Catholic Church and made Christianity a state religion DO need to read, read, read.) And then I got completely bored with it. Tired of it. It was an intellectual obsession that ultimately dead-ended for me. (Note: I am not criticizing Catholic apologists. Some great saints, like St. Francis de Sales, were apologists.) And it dead-ended because it was not where my heart was, it had no relation to the simply piety of my childhood. I took a two-year whirl through apologetics again, as someone close to me was considering Orthodoxy.
About six months ago, when the brouhaha over Benedict XVI’s Regensberg address was on-going, a friend sent me an article from the London Times that sought to address papal infallibility. I wrote what must have been a four page response, outlining every single way the article had gotten papal infallibility wrong, providing Scriptural passages, points of debate in Orthodox and Catholic circles, and so on. It felt so good to do and I was so sad that I hadn't saved it to admire my own brain's output. But after that triumphalist rush, I thought, "wow, that was a waste of time."
[Note: I hate when Catholics label themselves as traditionalist or neo or liberal or rad or whatever else, as if the Church is a political party and there are certain planks that define your position. For Heaven’s sake, if you are Catholic and feel you MUST label yourself, at least choose something that makes spiritual sense - something resonates with the rhythm of your heart and the melody of your soul. Say, “I’m in the beat of the Carmelites, to the melody of St. Teresa of Avila” or "I move to the rhythm of the Redemptorists, to St Gerard Majella's resounding baritone." Otherwise, you’re just talking about the ideas that bind your mind. (And the debate between Thomists and Molinists cannot slide in this way).]
I wonder, if I ever have children, what it is I will teach them. Maybe I'll read ecumenical council documents to them when they're still in utero. Will I whisper in their ears details of the Hesychast controversy while pushing them on the swing? Will I greet them every morning with a fact about humanism and sola scriptura? Will I demand discussions about the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity over the dinner table? Maybe I will tape pictures of Popes Hormisdas and Honorius I in their rooms, so Catholic-Orthodox debate will be natural to them. And I will put notes about free will and nature in their lunch boxes, to discuss with their friends at school. Maybe my children (by the age of 10!! God, I pray that in your infinite mercy and wisdom, you will give me genius children. Amen.) will finally figure out how Calvinists can believe in unconditional election and irresistible grace and yet care so much about what others do.
And yet this is outside the rhythm of my life. I like to pray the prayers I've known since childhood. I like the silly artwork and the medals. I like the variety. It has flavor, and I come from a family heritage that is a motley mix.
I began with the two images from my childhood for a reason. They are the images of St. Joseph:
O St. Joseph, I never weary contemplating you and Jesus asleep in your arms. Press His fine head and kiss Him for me, and ask Him to return the kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, patron of departing souls, pray for us.
And St. Anne teaching the Blessed Virgin:
Good St. Anne, mother of her Who is our Life, our Sweetness and our Hope, pray to her for us, and obtain our request.
The saints are everyday life. They are the rhythm, the ebb and flow. In the darkness, they are the medium through which God's light shines. They are family, and they have cool names and led awesome lives. Read about them, talk to them, get to know them. Find out what they have to say about Christ. They'll talk your head off, if you let them.